The focal point of artistic depictions in Byzantine Christian churches and chapels, a pantocrater is an elaborate portrait of Jesus Christ as a young man. Usually it is found either on the ceiling as the center of a series of smaller depictions of angels and saints as well as New Testament figures surrounding it or over the alter in the apse.
I am the light of the world.
He who follows me shall not walk in the darkness,
but shall have the light of life.1
Literally meaning "ruler of the world" or "king of the world," the pantocrater is a feature of Byzantine churches throughout the Mediterranean region. Two particularly fine examples of early works exist in chapels on the island of Cyprus off of the Levantian coast.
In the Panayia tis Asinov, a small, nondescript church built in 1105 in rural Cyprus named for the Virgin Mary, a fantasically elaborate ceiling painting exists with a strikingly beautiful pantocrater. Done in fresco, this Christ figure is depicted as larger than all of the others on the ceiling; this is a tradition in painting technique that extends back to ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian artwork. He is shown with his eyes averted from the viewer, facing to his left; it is said that the natives think this is because he forgives their sins and hence looks away from them. This feature is typical to all such pantocraters of the time. Christ's right hand is lifted with his two forefingers raised in a gesture that was characteristic to portrayals of holy figures. In modern times, we would say that he was holding up what looks similar to the sign of peace. Another particularly good example of a pantocrater is in the Panayai tu Arakos. Literally meaning "the church of the Virgin Mary of the pea" (churches were customarily named for vegetables at the time, odd as it sounds), it houses a very similar pantocrater as the previous Cypriot chapel.
Many such pantocraters exist throughout southern Europe. In The Cathedral of Monreale, Provincia di Palermo, Sicily, there is a fantastic display of Byzantine art featuring prominently the Christ Pantocrater. The church was built by the Norman King William II beginning in 1174 and continued on for another twelve years. This monarch, one of the last of the Norman kings in Sicily, sought especially to show the world that the supposedly barbaric culture was capable of magnificent craftsmanship comparable to the Byzantines. Due to the craftsmen the William gathered for the project being of various origins, the portrait panels combine Classic, Arabic, Saracen, and Byzantine elements. This is obvious in the portrait of Christ; it is very fluid and graceful. He is robed in red and blue, and his arms are stretched wide. His eyes are again fixed to his left, with the first two fingers of his right hand raised. It is set on an almost gilded background.
Pantocraters are a fixture of early Christian religious expression, and accurately reflect how important faith was to these European cultures. Though many of them exist, they all share the aspect of being huge and awe-inspiring, the most important aspect of early Christian worship.
1John 8:12. This inscription was found in The Cathedral of Cephalu in Sicily. In the pantocrater there, Christ appears holding a Bible written in both Latin and Greek and displays this passage from the Gospel of John.
The Cathedral of Monreale:
Information about the Panayia tis Asinov and the Panayai tu Arakos from personal and class notes and essays.